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    When starlight from billions of years ago zips across the universe and finally comes into focus on Earth, astronomers want their telescopes to be in the best locations possible to see what's out there. Despite years of legal battles and months of protests by Native Hawaiian opponents, the international coalition that wants to build the world's largest telescope in Hawaii insists that the islands' highest peak — Mauna Kea — is the best place for their $1.4 billion instrument. But just barely. Thirty Meter Telescope officials acknowledge that their backup site atop a peak on the Spanish Canary island of La Palma is a comparable observatory location, and that it wouldn't cost more money or take extra time to build it there. There's also no significant opposition to putting the telescope on La Palma like there is in Hawaii, where some Native Hawaiians consider the mountain sacred and have blocked trucks from hauling construction equipment to Mauna Kea's summit for more than a month. But Hawaii has advantages that scientists say make it slightly better: higher altitude, cooler temperatures, and rare star-gazing moments that will allow the cutting-edge telescope to reach its full potential. 'Every once in a while at Mauna Kea, you get one of those magic nights,' said University of California, Santa Cruz astronomy and astrophysics professor Michael Bolte, a Thirty Meter Telescope board member. 'When the air is super stable above the site, you get images that you simply couldn't get anyplace else.' Bolte, who has used existing Mauna Kea telescopes, said those 'magic' Hawaii nights could hold discoveries that might be missed in La Palma. 'Let's suppose one of your big science cases is to look for life on planets that are orbiting other stars,' he said. 'The star is so much brighter than the planet you're trying to observe, it's really hard to do.' The advanced optics and huge size of the Thirty Meter Telescope, especially if built at Mauna Kea's higher altitude, could allow scientists to more easily detect potentially life-filled planets, Bolte said. To see distant planets near bright stars, astronomers use telescopes to capture infrared light that emanates from the space objects. But John Mather, an astrophysicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2006 for his work on the Big Bang theory, says there are other ways to get that data. Mather, the senior project scientist for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, planned for launch into space in 2021, said the new instrument will be extremely effective at gathering infrared light. The atmosphere won't get in the way of the telescope's imaging capabilities because it won't be on Earth. Data from the Webb telescope can be combined with information from other Earth-based telescopes to compensate for the infrared advantage that Mauna Kea has over La Palma, Mather said. He said Webb will open up 'new territory that you'll never be able to tackle from the ground.' Mather is also working on a longer-term solution to the problem of seeing Earth-like planets orbiting distant stars, which he likened to seeing a 'firefly next to a spotlight.' It's a large 'star shade' that would be launched far into space and positioned to block bright stars while allowing telescopes on Earth to see the planets orbiting them. Those advancements could level the playing field between places such as Mauna Kea and La Palma, said astrophysicist Avi Loeb, who chairs Harvard University's astronomy department. 'One thing that you need to keep in mind is that humans can change the system as to compensate for the slightly worse conditions' in Spain, Loeb said. 'In the end, it might perform as well or maybe even better.' Loeb agreed that Mauna Kea is a slightly better location for infrared observations. But La Palma is 'an excellent site, so there would be exceptional science done there,' he added. The Native Hawaiian opponents call themselves 'protectors' of Mauna Kea and aren't concerned about their mountain's advantages for astronomers. They just want the telescope group to abandon Hawaii. That would 'be a win for everyone,' said protest leader Kealoha Pisciotta shortly after Thirty Meter Telescope officials announced they would move forward with a building permit application for the La Palma site a few weeks ago. 'There's lots of good science to be done from the Canary Islands,' Pisciotta said. Not all Native Hawaiians are opposed to the telescope. Some tout the educational and economic opportunities it would bring to the Big Island. Others have compared modern astronomers to their Polynesian ancestors who used stars to navigate their wooden outriggers across the Pacific and discover new lands — including Hawaii. Mauna Kea stands nearly 14,000 feet (4,300 meters) above sea level, more than twice as high as the Spanish site that is already home to the world's largest optical telescope. Like Hawaii's Big Island, the Spain site has good weather, a stable atmosphere and very little light pollution. Thirty Meter Telescope would be a next generation model that's expected to transform ground-based astronomy — allowing scientists to see deeper into space than previously possible. Its large mirror will produce sharper, more detailed images of space. 'You can get images that are 12 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope,' Bolte said. And most of the same science planned for Hawaii would still get done in Spain — it would just take longer. 'Depending on the kind of science you want to do, it's going to be a 10% hit to a 50% hit in speed,' Bolte said. 'You are going to have to observe that much longer at La Palma to get the same quality data.' José Manuel Vilchez, an astronomer with Spain's Higher Council of Scientific Research and a former member of the scientific committee of the Astrophysics Institute of the Canary Islands, said that building the telescope on La Palma would not be a downgrade. 'We are talking about the best of the best. One is a 10, the other is a 9.9,' Vilchez said. 'We are talking about decimals.' But for astronomers, decimals can make the difference between seeing something extraordinary and missing it. 'Mauna Kea, since it is higher, would have a thinner atmospheric layer and would observe more in certain infrared ranges,' Vilchez said. 'The possibility of capturing the image is lower' on La Palma. Vilchez also said there is greater public support for the telescope in Spain and that the cost of operating it at a lower elevation would be cheaper. On Mauna Kea 'you are further away from the base and the cost goes up,' Vilchez said. 'In the Canary Islands the institutional support is 100% and 99% of citizens support the astronomy work.' That lack of opposition is something officials cannot claim for Mauna Kea. The telescope group's Bolte said what began as opposition to the project has 'become the focus of the whole Hawaiian sovereignty and self-determination' movement and is a reflection of how Native Hawaiians have felt 'displaced from their own lands' for over a century. 'Now that they have the attention of everyone by stopping this telescope, how can that be used to somehow take some steps forward in the well-being of Native Hawaiians?' he asked. ___ Associated Press writer Joseph Wilson in Barcelona, Spain, contributed to this report.
  • Countries have agreed to protect more than a dozen shark species at risk of extinction, in a move aimed at conserving some of the ocean's most awe-inspiring creatures who have themselves become prey to commercial fishing and the Chinese appetite for shark fin soup. Three proposals covering the international trade of 18 types of mako sharks, wedgefishes and guitarfishes each passed with a needed two-thirds majority in a committee of the World Wildlife Conference known as CITES on Sunday. 'Today we are one step closer to protecting the fastest shark in the ocean, as well as the most threatened,' said Jen Sawada, who directs The Pew Charitable Trusts' shark conservation work. The measures don't ban fishing these sharks and rays, but any trade must be sustainable. The move isn't final but is a key sign before an official decision at its plenary this coming week. Conservationists applauded and exchanged hugs after the tallies. Opponents variously included China, Iceland, Japan, Malaysia and New Zealand. The U.S. voted against the mako shark measure, but supported the other two. Critics variously argued that the measures distanced CITES from its initial mandate to protect endangered land animals and plants, not marine life, and insisted the science didn't back up the call to increase protections. They also noted that that millions of Mako sharks exist and even the CITES secretariat advised against the protections. But proponents countered that stocks of sharks are in a deep dive, with tens of millions killed each year, and that measures need to be taken now — with what they call some of the most significant rules ever adopted for trade in shark parts. Rima Jabado, a shark expert and lead scientist of the Gulf Elasmo project, said many of the species included in the CITES proposals are classified as 'critically endangered.' Jabado said there has been an 80% decline in the number of wedgefishes, based on available data. Like giant guitarfishes, the enigmatic wedgefish has an elongated triangle-shaped head and can be found in oceans in Southeast Asia, the Arabian Sea and East Africa. Makos are the world's fastest sharks, reaching speeds of up to 80 mph (nearly 130 kph). But they often get caught up in the nets of fishing trawlers hunting for tuna. Several countries with large fishing fleets, including Japan, opposed the measure to protect mako sharks. 'Japan has been highly dependent on (live) marine resources from the ancient times,' said Hideki Moronuki, director of fisheries negotiations at the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. 'It's very, very important for us in Japan to sustainably use all those marine riches,' he said. He was among those who noted that even the CITES secretariat had recommended rejecting the mako shark proposal. CITES concluded that 'with the possible but uncertain exception of the Mediterranean, the population of (mako sharks) does not seem to have declined below the 30% threshold in different ocean regions' and that 'it is currently not projected that declines would continue.' Still, Jabado said some species of sharks and rays are becoming so difficult to find in the wild that scientists only often see them when they are on sale at local fish markets. 'How are we ever going to save these species if we only see them when fishermen bring them in?' she said, adding that even if actions are taken now, it will be decades before shark populations start to recover. Losing more sharks and rays could also have other unintended consequences since they are top ocean predators and help to balance the ecosystems, Jabado said. Scientists warn that although warming oceans and climate change are also hurting sharks, it is the demand for shark fin soup that is threatening to drive some species to extinction. The Pew Trust estimates that between 63 million and 273 million sharks are killed every year, mostly to feed the shark fin trade centered in Hong Kong. Dried shark fin can draw up to $1,000 per kilogram. The fins are often turned into shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy that symbolizes good fortune, in which the gelatinous fin is served in a broth whose recipe dates back to the 10th-century Song Dynasty. Fishermen often slice off a shark's fin while the animal is still alive before tossing the writhing carcass back into the ocean. While Chinese celebrities like retired basketball star Yao Ming are trying to persuade diners to abandon the soup, many aren't convinced. 'Shark fin soup is a Chinese tradition so why should I stop eating it?' Wilson Kwan said outside a seafood restaurant in London's Chinatown. 'I know some people say it's cruel to sharks, but sharks are killers too.' Last year, there were an estimated 66 unprovoked shark attacks on humans globally, including four fatalities, according to the Florida Museum, which tracks such incidents. It is exceedingly rare for sharks to bite humans — and when they do, it's often because they have mistaken them for seals or other prey. Conservationists say movies like 'Jaws' have unfairly maligned society's perception of sharks and in turn, made it difficult to garner support to protect them. 'People would be outraged if they were serving dolphins in restaurants,' said Graham Buckingham of the British shark group, Bite-Back. 'But because it's a shark, they think it's perfectly OK.' ___ Maria Cheng reported from London.
  • A Russian space capsule carrying a humanoid robot has failed to dock as planned with the International Space Station. A statement from the Russian space agency Roscosmos said the failure on Saturday was because of problems in the docking system. It said the space station itself and the six-person crew are safe. Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin said on Twitter that a new docking attempt would be made on Tuesday. The capsule was launched Thursday as part of tests of a new rocket that is expected to replace the Soyuz-FG next year. It is carrying a robot called Fedor, which will perform two weeks of tests aboard the space station. Vladimir Solovyev, flight director for the Russian segment of the ISS, said the robot had not been taught how to manually conduct a docking.
  • In a sharp escalation of tensions over fires ravaging the Amazon, France on Friday accused Brazil's president of having lied to French leader Emmanuel Macron and threatened to block a European Union trade deal with South American states including Brazil. Ireland joined in the threat of possible economic repercussions for Brazil and its South American neighbors, starkly illustrating how the Amazon is becoming a battleground between Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and increasingly critical governments alarmed that vast swathes of the rainforest are going up in smoke. Having won support from other governments, but infuriated Bolsonaro, by putting the Amazon wildfires on the radar of world leaders gathering for a Group of Seven summit in France, Macron then further upped the stakes and the pressure with a bluntly-worded statement from his office Friday that took direct aim at Bolsonaro's trustworthiness. 'In light of Brazil's attitude these recent weeks,' the statement said, Macron 'can only conclude that President Bolsonaro lied to him during the Osaka Summit' in June where governments agreed on the 'urgent need' to tackle climate change, pollution and environmental destruction. 'The decisions and statements from Brazil these recent weeks show clearly that President Bolsonaro has decided to not respect his commitments on the climate, nor to involve himself on the issue of biodiversity.' As a consequence, France now opposes an EU trade deal 'in its current state' with the Mercosur bloc of South American nations that includes Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar also said 'there is no way that Ireland will vote' for the deal 'if Brazil does not honor its environmental commitments.' The tariff-slashing deal was billed as the EU's largest ever trade agreement when struck in June. The deal also re-committed Mercosur nations to the Paris climate accord aimed at limiting global warming, which included pledged Brazilian action to stop illegal deforestation in the Amazon. Macron first raised the alarm over the Amazon with a tweet Thursday saying: 'Our house is burning. Literally.' He asked that the Amazon fires be added to the agenda of the G-7 summit of world leaders that he's hosting this weekend, and quickly found backing from Germany, the EU and others. Prime Minister Antii Rinne of Finland, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, described himself as 'truly worried about the attitude Brazil seems to have adopted right now regarding its own forests' and called the Amazon fires 'a threat to our whole planet, not just to Brazil or South America.' Unusually, politicians found themselves on the same page as sports superstars, who used their global social media followings to also call for action to preserve the rainforest. Soccer's five-time world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo tweeted a widely cited figure that climate scientists say far overstates the actual oxygen produced by the rainforest: 'The Amazon Rainforest produces more than 20% of the world's oxygen and it's been burning for the past 3 weeks. It's our responsibility to help to save our planet.' Other soccer stars chimed in, too — unusual in the sport whose professionals are often reluctant to express views about off-pitch issues. Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe, a World Cup winner with France, tweeted a composite photo of rainforest in the shape of human lungs , lush and green on one side, consumed by flames on the other, and the words: 'Pray for Amazonia.' And from the world of tennis came a straight-to-the point tweet from top-ranked Novak Djokovic. 'Heartbreaking,' the winner of 16 majors wrote above a photo of forests aflame. But Bolsonaro bristled. The Brazilian leader accused Macron of sensationalism and of seeking 'personal political gains in an internal matter for Brazil and other Amazonian countries.' Brazil contains about 60% of the Amazon rainforest. Even if Amazon nations did seek help in fighting the fires, there may not be much that European governments could quickly offer in the way of material assistance. Amphibious planes widely used in Europe to dump water and retardants on wildfires don't have the range to cross the Atlantic Ocean, Col. Grégory Allione, head of France's national federation of firefighters, told The Associated Press. Larger, land-based fire-fighting planes could only reach the Amazon from Europe via a circuitous route over Greenland, North and Central America, which 'would take an eternity,' he said. And European governments might not have much firefighting expertise and manpower to spare after another scorching European summer that saw record heat waves and left many areas of Europe tinder-dry, another consequence of climate change. 'We're already very busy,' Allione said. 'We've always had fires but now we have giant infernos.' Environmental campaigners said longer-term solutions were needed to preserve the Amazon. Some have accused Macron of hypocrisy, arguing that while he's adept at using Twitter to position himself as a champion for the planet, his domestic record on green issues is spotty at best. His first environment minister quit abruptly, frustrated by the slow progress fighting climate change and other environmental problems under Macron's government. 'Both inequalities and climate change are two fires on the planet, on the humanity. They are big threats for us all,' said Cecile Duflot, head of Oxfam France and another former minister of Macron's. 'What happens in the Amazon of course hurts us, but this is not a coincidence. It is a political choice made by Bolsonaro to destroy nature, to support those who are destroying nature, so we must absolutely act together in a concerted, determined and diplomatic way together with the local population who are living this as an absolute disaster.' ___ John Leicester reported from Paris.
  • Russia's first floating nuclear power plant sailed Friday to its destination on the nation's Arctic coast, a project that environmentalists have criticized as unsafe. The Akademik Lomonosov is a 140-meter (459-foot) long towed platform that carries two 35-megawatt nuclear reactors. On Friday, it set out from the Arctic port of Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula on a three-week journey to Pevek on the Chukotka Peninsula more than 4,900 kilometers (about 2,650 nautical miles) east. Its purpose is to provide power for the area, replacing the Bilibino nuclear power plant on Chukotka that is being decommissioned. The Russian project is the first floating nuclear power plant since the U.S. MH-1A, a much smaller reactor that supplied the Panama Canal with power from 1968-1975. Environmentalists have criticized the project as inherently dangerous and a threat to the pristine Arctic region. Russia's state nuclear corporation Rosatom has dismissed those concerns, insisting that the floating nuclear plant is safe to operate. Rosatom director, Alexei Likhachev, said his corporation hopes to sell floating reactors to foreign markets. Russian officials have previously mentioned Indonesia and Sudan among potential export customers.
  • There is now a 'Rolling Stones Rock' on Mars, and it's giving Mick, Keith and the boys some serious satisfaction. NASA named a little stone for the legendary rockers after its InSight robotic lander captured it rolling across the surface of Mars last year, and the new moniker was made public at Thursday night's Rolling Stones' concert at the Rose Bowl. 'NASA has given us something we have always dreamed of, our very own rock on Mars. I can't believe it,' Mick Jagger told the crowd after grooving through a rendition of 'Tumbling Dice.' ''I want to bring it back and put it on our mantelpiece.' Robert Downey Jr. announced the name, taking the stage just before the band's set at the Southern California stadium that is just a stone's throw from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages InSight. 'Cross-pollinating science and a legendary rock band is always a good thing,' the 'Iron Man' actor said backstage. He told the crowd that JPL scientists had come up with the name 'in a fit of fandom and clever association.' 'Charlie, Ronnie, Keith and Mick — they were in no way opposed to the notion,' Downey said, 'but in typical egalitarian fashion, they suggested I assist in procuring 60,000 votes to make it official, so that's my mission.' He led the audience in a shout of 'aye' before declaring the deed done. Jagger later said, 'I want to say a special thanks to our favorite action man Robert Downey Jr. That was a very nice intro he gave.' The rock, just a little bigger than a golf ball, was moved by InSight's own thrusters as the robotic lander touched down on Mars on Nov. 26. It only moved about 3 feet (0.9 meters), but that's the farthest NASA has seen a rock roll while landing a craft on another planet. 'I've seen a lot of Mars rocks over my career,' Matt Golombek, a JPL geologist who has helped NASA land all its Mars missions since 1997, said in a statement. 'This one probably won't be in a lot of scientific papers, but it's definitely one of the coolest.' The Rolling Stones and NASA logos were shown side by side in the run-up to the show as the sun set over the Rose Bowl, leaving many fans perplexed as to what the connection was before it was announced. The concert had originally been scheduled for spring, before the Stones postponed their No Filter North American tour because Jagger had heart surgery. The 76-year-old showed no signs of poor health or even his age as he danced, pranced and boogied up and down a long catwalk that extended to the middle of the stadium's field. He did poke fun at his advanced years. 'It's great to be back at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena,' Jagger said. 'At least I think we've been here before.' (They have, in 1994.) He also said, 'We walked up and down Hollywood Boulevard looking for the Rolling Stones star but couldn't find it.' (The band doesn't have one.) And he took a dig at President Donald Trump's recent talk of acquiring Greenland when introducing his bandmates. 'On the drums,' Jagger shouted, 'Greenland's new economic adviser, Charlie Watts!' ___ Follow AP Entertainment Writer Andrew Dalton on Twitter: https://twitter.com/andyjamesdalton
  • A new U.S. government management plan unveiled Friday clears the way for coal mining and oil and gas drilling on land that used to be off limits as part of a sprawling national monument in Utah before President Donald Trump downsized the protected area two years ago. The plan released by the Bureau of Land Management would also open more lands to cattle grazing and recreation and acknowledges there could be 'adverse effects' on land and resources in the monument. But while allowing more activities, the plan would also add a few safeguards for the cliffs, canyons, waterfalls and arches still inside Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that weren't in a proposed plan issued last year. Among them are opening fewer acres to ATVs and cancelling a plan that would have allowed people to collect some non-dinosaur fossils in certain areas. The BLM says no land will be sold from the 1,345 square miles (3,488 square kilometers) that were cut from what had been the 3,000 square miles (7,770 square kilometers) of the monument. Harry Barber, acting manager of the national monument, told The Associated Press the plan reflects changes made after considering input from the public and considering an assessment that there are enough protections already in place. 'There are people who graze livestock, people that like to hunt, people that like to hike, people that like to trail run,' said Barber, who has worked at the monument since it was created. 'We're trying to be fair.' The plan is expected to go into effect after a public review period. The monument has seen a 63% increase in visitors over the past decade, hosting 1.1 million people from October 2017 through September 2018, according to U.S. government figures. Conservation and paleontology groups have filed ongoing lawsuits to stop the downsizing. They say the new plan lacks adequate protections for the land and reiterated their concern that the years spent creating the plan were a waste of taxpayer resources because the lawsuits remain unresolved. Steve Bloch, legal director at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance conservation group, said it's unforgivable to cut the monument in half and downgrade the excluded lands to what he calls 'garden variety public lands.' 'Grand Staircase-Escalante is one of the nation's public land crown jewels and from the outset the Trump administration was hell-bent on destroying this place,' Bloch said. The allowance for coal, oil and gas extraction on the lands cut was expected as the Trump administration carried out a 'reckless' plan to undo protections on pristine lands, said Heidi McIntosh, managing attorney of Earthjustice's Rocky Mountains office. 'First, they ripped in half and now they are officially opening the door to all kinds of destructive activities,' she said. 'It's really a giveaway to the fossil fuel industry.' Barber stressed that protections will remain even though the lands are no longer within the monument. 'It's not a free-for-all,' Barber said. 'That seems to be what I hear a lot, people feeling like now anybody can go out and do anything they want to do on these lands. But, they need to realize that we still have our rules and policies.' Thus far, market dynamics have limited interest in a large coal reserve found in the now unprotected lands. But an economic analysis estimates coal production could lead to $208 million in annual revenues and $16.6 million in royalties for the U.S. government. Oil and gas wells in that area could produce $4.1 million in annual revenues, it says. Barber said he's excited that competitive events would be allowed in the monument under the BLM plan. A popular trail running race called the Grand to Grand Ultra has wanted to extend its course through parts of the monument and will now be able to seek permission, he said. President Bill Clinton created the monument in 1996 using the Antiquities Act, which sets guidelines calling for the 'smallest area compatible with proper care and management' of artifacts to be protected. Trump cut the size of Grand Staircase-Escalante amid a review of 27 national monuments by then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Trump also downsized Bears Ears National Monument in Utah by about 85%. Trump said scaling back the two monuments reversed federal overreach. The move earned cheers from Republican leaders in Utah who lobbied him to undo protections by Democratic presidents that they considered overly broad. Conservation groups have called Trump's decision the largest elimination of protected land in American history. David Polly, a paleontologist at Indiana University and past president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, said he's relieved no fossil collection will be allowed inside the monument but he's worried that allowing people to take non-dinosaur fossils in the lands cut from the monument could lead to problems. Some items such as petrified wood can be hard to distinguish from a dinosaur bones, he said. 'It may be accidentally encouraging people to end up breaking the rules,' Polly said.
  • From a helicopter, Greenland's brilliant white ice and dark mountains make the desolation seem to go on forever. And the few people who live here — its whole population wouldn't fill a football stadium — are poor, with a high rate of substance abuse and suicide. One scientist called it the 'end of the planet.' When U.S. President Donald Trump floated the idea of buying Greenland, it was met with derision, seen as an awkward and inappropriate approach of an erstwhile ally. But it might also be an Aladdin's Cave of oil, natural gas and rare earth minerals just waiting to be tapped as the ice recedes. The northern island and the rest of the Arctic aren't just hotter due to global warming. As melting ice opens shipping lanes and reveals incredible riches, the region is seen as a new geopolitical and economic asset, with the U.S., Russia, China and others wanting in. 'An independent Greenland could, for example, offer basing rights to either Russia or China or both,' said Fen Hampson, the former head of the international security program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation think tank in Waterloo, Ontario, who is now a professor at Carleton University. He noted the desire by some there to secede as a semi-autonomous territory of Denmark. 'I am not saying this would happen, but it is a scenario that would have major geostrategic implications, especially if the Northwest Passage becomes a transit route for shipping, which is what is happening in the Russian Arctic.' In April, Russian President Vladimir Putin put forward an ambitious program to reaffirm his country's presence in the Arctic, including efforts to build ports and other infrastructure and expand its icebreaker fleet. Russia wants to stake its claim in the region that is believed to hold up to one-fourth of the Earth's undiscovered oil and gas. China sees Greenland as a possible source of rare earths and other minerals and a port for shipping through the Arctic to the eastern U.S. It called last year for joint development of a 'Polar Silk Road' as part of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative to build railways, ports and other facilities in dozens of countries. But while global warming pushes the cold and ice farther north each year, experts caution that the race to the Arctic is an incredibly challenging marathon, not a sprint. The melting of the Greenland ice sheet creates uncertainty and danger for offshore oil and gas developers, threatening rigs and ships. 'All that ice doesn't suddenly melt; it creates icebergs that you have to navigate around,' said Victoria Herrmann, managing director of the Arctic Institute, a nonprofit focused on Arctic security. On the other hand, while mining in Greenland has been expensive due to the environment, development costs have fallen as the ice has melted, making it more attractive to potential buyers, she said. Strategically, Greenland forms part of what the U.S. views as a key corridor for naval operations between the Arctic and the North Atlantic. It is also part of the broader Arctic region, considered strategically important because of its proximity to the U.S. and economically vital for its natural resources. Hampson noted it was an American protectorate during World War II, when Nazi Germany occupied Denmark, and the U.S. was allowed to build radar stations and rent-free bases on its territory after the war. That includes today's Thule Air Force Base, 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) south of the North Pole. After the war, the U.S. proposed buying Greenland for $100 million after flirting with the idea of swapping land in Alaska for parts of the Arctic island. The U.S. also thought about buying Greenland 80 years earlier. Trump 'may not be as crazy as he sounds despite his ham-fisted offer, which clearly upset the Danes, and rightly so,' Hampson said. Greenland is part of the Danish realm along with the Faeroe Islands, another semi-autonomous territory, and has its own government and parliament. Greenland's 56,000 residents got extensive home rule in 1979 but Denmark still handles foreign and defense policies, with an annual subsidy of $670 million. Its indigenous people are not wealthy, and vehicles, restaurants, stores and basic services are few. Trump said Sunday he's interested in Greenland 'strategically,' but its purchase is 'not No. 1 on the burner.' Although Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen called Trump's idea to purchase Greenland an 'absurd discussion,' prompting him to call her 'nasty' and cancel an upcoming visit to Copenhagen, she also acknowledged its importance to both nations. 'The developments in the Arctic region calls for further cooperation between the U.S. and Greenland, the Faeroe Islands and Denmark,' she said. 'Therefore I would like to underline our invitation for a stronger cooperation on Arctic affairs still stands.' Greenland is thought to have the largest deposits outside China of rare earth minerals used to make batteries and cellphones. Such minerals were deemed critical to economic and national security by the U.S. Interior Department last year, and as demand rises 'deposits outside of China will be sought to serve as a counterbalance to any market control that could be exerted by a single large producer,' said Kenneth Medlock, senior director at the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University. Off Greenland's shores, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates there could be 17.5 billion undiscovered barrels of oil and 148 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, though the remote location and harsh weather have limited exploration. Around the Arctic Circle, there's potential for 90 billion barrels of oil. Only 14 offshore wells were drilled in the past 40 years, according to S&P Global Analytics. So far, no oil in exploitable quantities has been found. 'It's very speculative, but in theory they could have a lot of oil,' said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy & Economic Research Inc. 'It's perceived as being the new Alaska, where the old Alaska was thought to be worthless and turned out to have huge reserves. And it's one of the few places on Earth that's lightly populated, and it's close to the U.S.' Michael Byers, an Arctic expert at the University of British Columbia, suggests there are better approaches for Washington than the politically awkward suggestion of purchasing Greenland. 'There's no security concern that would be dealt with better if Greenland became a part of the United States. It's part of the NATO alliance,' he said. 'As for resources, Greenland is open to foreign investment. Arctic resources are expensive and that is why there is not more activity taking place. That's the barrier. It's not about Greenland restricting access.' That's been the approach taken by China, which has had mixed success. Greenland officials have visited China to look for investors but Beijing's interest also has provoked political unease. In 2016, Denmark reversed plans to sell Groennedal, a former U.S. naval base that the Danish military had used as its command center for Greenland after a Hong Kong company, General Nice Group, emerged as a bidder, according to defencewatch.dk, a Danish news outlet. Last year, then-U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis successfully pressured Denmark not to let China bankroll three commercial airports on Greenland, over fears they could give Beijing a military foothold near Canada, The Wall Street Journal reported. Beijing's biggest Greenland-related investment to date is an ownership stake by a Chinese company in Australia-based Greenland Minerals Ltd., which plans to mine rare earths and uranium. 'People talk about China, but China can access Arctic resources through foreign investment,' Byers said. 'And foreign investment is a lot cheaper than trying to conquer something.' ____ Rising reported from Berlin. Cathy Bussewitz in New York, Joe McDonald in Bejing, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Rob Gillies in Toronto, Ben Fox in Washington and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed.
  • International trade in elephant ivory will remain banned, according to a vote at the World Wildlife Conference, known as CITES, in Switzerland. Thursday's vote by a key committee makes it likely that the plenary session next week will uphold the prohibition of ivory sales. Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe had proposed they be allowed to sell government-owned ivory stockpiles, in a one-time sale followed by a six-year moratorium. The proposal was defeated with 101 countries opposing and 23 countries in support, with 18 abstentions. Kenya and several other African countries opposed the proposal to lift the ban on ivory sales, arguing that even restricted, legal sales would fuel greater demand for elephant ivory on the international market. The African Elephant Coalition, representing 32 African countries, opposed allowing any ivory sales.
  • Nations around the world moved Thursday to protect giraffes as an endangered species for the first time, drawing praise from conservationists and scowls from some sub-Saharan African nations. Thursday's vote by a key committee at the World Wildlife Conference known as CITES paves the way for the measure's likely approval by its plenary next week. The plan would regulate world trade in giraffe parts, including hides, bone carvings and meat, while stopping short of a full ban. It passed 106-21 with seven abstentions. 'So many people are so familiar with giraffes that they think they're abundant,' said Susan Lieberman, vice president of international policy for the Wildlife Conservation Society. 'And in Southern Africa, they may be doing OK, but giraffes are critically endangered.' Lieberman said giraffes were particularly at risk in parts of West, Central and East Africa. The Wildlife Conservation Society said it was concerned about the multiple threats to giraffes that have already resulted in population decline, citing habitat loss, droughts worsened by climate change and the illegal killings and trade in giraffe body parts. The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, hailed the move, noting that giraffes are a vulnerable species facing habitat loss and population decline. A key African conservationist said it could help reverse drops in giraffe populations, as the move would help better track numbers of giraffes. 'The giraffe has experienced over 40% decline in the last 30 years, said Maina Philip Muruthi of the African Wildlife Foundation. 'If that trend continues, it means that we are headed toward extinction.' Still, not all African countries supported the move. 'We see no reason as to why we should support this decision, because Tanzania has a stable and increasing population of giraffes,' said Maurus Msuha, director of wildlife at the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism. 'Over 50% of our giraffe population is within the Serengeti ecosystem, which is well protected. Why should we then go for this?' CITES says the population of wild giraffes is actually much smaller than that of wild African elephants. 'We're talking about a few tens of thousands of giraffes and we're talking about a few hundreds of thousands of African elephants,' said Tom De Meulenaar, chief of scientific services at CITES. He said the convention was intended to specifically address the international trade in giraffes and their parts. 'With fewer giraffes than elephants in Africa, it was a no-brainer to simply regulate giraffe exports,' said Tanya Sanerib, international legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. The U.S. is the world's biggest consumer of giraffe products, conservationists said. Sanerib said it was important for the U.S. to act on its own as well. 'It's still urgent for the Trump administration to protect these imperiled animals under the U.S. Endangered Species Act,' she said in a statement. The meeting in Geneva comes after President Donald Trump's administration last week announced plans to water down the U.S. Endangered Species Ac — a message that could echo among attendees at the CITES conference, even if the U.S. move is more about domestic policy than international trade.